When Michelle R. Weise and Clayton Christensen published Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and Workforce Revolution in 2014, they chronicled the disruptive trajectory of online competency-based programs relative to traditional higher education. Specifically, they noted that online competency-based programs not only have the potential to unlock more flexible, stackable credential programs, but also to address skills gaps by partnering directly with employers to meet their needs. As predicted, since 2014, these programs have continued to crop up. With more than 600 U.S.-based universities currently designing competency-based programs, we need to ask: How do educational leaders develop effective competency-based curriculum?

In my recent study, “A Delphi Study of Effective Practices for Developing Competency-Based Learning Models in Higher Education,” I sought to answer this question by conducting a series of interviews with 10 experts in the field of competency-based program development on what they thought was important to the development of competencies, assessments and rubrics, and learning resources in a competency-based learning model for higher education degree programs. Based on these experts’ input, I generated a list of agreed-upon effective practices for developing competencies and assessments and leveraging learning resources in competency-based programs. Despite the encouraging willingness among participants to pursue these models, all three models still pose major challenges in the traditional system. Here are three opportunities and challenges I identified through my study for developing competency-based learning models in higher education:

1. Partner with employers to design competencies. A recurring theme among participants in the study was that employers should be active participants in competency-based design. As one participant said, universities need to include employers in competency development “to be sure that the competencies reflect what is needed in the workplace today.” Some participants, however, noted that there was still a need to balance employer input with curricular or program goals within the university. As another participant said regarding the potential of competency-based programs to have a positive impact on liberal learning, in competency-based programs “business, workforce preparedness, and general education live side-by-side” in a way that replicates what is happening in the workforce, rather than having content areas taught in isolation.

As universities look to adapt curriculum and pursue a competency-based education model, they are often forced to fit their competency-based programs into existing regulations and accrediting mandates. As a third participant explained, many existing program outcomes “are inapplicable in a competency-based education model” because they are too broad and not measurable. One way that higher education institutions can work to chip away at the status quo is through partnerships between employers and educational leaders. Through these partnerships, universities and employers can help bridge the gap between university outcomes and employer needs by developing competencies and assessments that provide students with authentic opportunities to master the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workplace.

2. Create a new value proposition that incentivizes outcomes over inputs. Accrediting bodies and the U.S. Department of Education still have a strong-hold when it comes to driving change in higher education, but higher education leaders and innovators are working toward adapting programs via a competency-based curriculum to deliver a new value proposition: targeted learning outcomes for students and skills that are meaningful to employers. As universities pursuing competency-based education re-examine their value proposition, accrediting agencies will hopefully begin to look at their own value proposition in regard to prioritizing student learning outcomes rather than assessing inputs and processes. Participants noted that universities needed to leverage leaders with strong collaboration skills who are open to feedback, criticism, and oversight. These skills and dispositions are necessary for advocating for a new value proposition within accrediting bodies and the U.S. Department of Education.

3. Align competencies and assessments with workforce needs. Participants in the study also agreed that competencies must be specific, actionable, measurable, and align with workplace needs. The assessments that measure competency must be authentic and exemplify what a student would do in the field when she finishes the degree and enters the workforce. Although competency-based education programs no longer measure seat time as a benchmark for student learning and often allow students freedom of choice, participants agreed that it is important for the curriculum to provide a suggested learning path that can be adapted based on individual student needs.

These challenges and opportunities are just some of the areas in which leaders in competency-based education movements can continue to advocate for change. The intentional and deliberate focus on student outcomes and creating a customizable learning path in competency-based education involves buy-in and input from multiple stakeholders (employers, faculty, subject-matter experts, instructional designers, technology partners). The challenge in creating competency-based curriculum lies, in part, in ensuring that all stakeholders are aligned and have a clear understanding of how competency-based education is different from the current, traditional learning model.

Notably, these models mark a sharp departure from traditional curriculum and assessment design in higher education. Participants in the study were in full agreement that partnering with employers and academic experts to create specific, actionable, and measurable competencies can help fulfill the promise of higher education and result in graduating students who have the skills needed for success in the workforce. When some participants were provided autonomy to operate outside the wheel-house of traditional course-based development in order to develop a competency-based model, they noted that this freedom allowed them to focus on developing competencies, assessments, and learning resources that could truly bridge the gap between academic outcomes and employer needs. When operating within the confines of traditional development, however, higher education leaders must be careful not to “competency-ize” courses in such a way that does not allow for mastery learning or constitute a true competency-based learning model.

By continuing to learn from existing competency-based education programs and building upon these effective practices, traditional institutions and new entrants alike can start to tackle the chronic skills gap noted in Hire Education, wherein only 11 percent of business leaders agreed that graduates have the skills for success in the workforce. Competency-based programs have the potential to shorten time-to-degree completion and expand access to higher education. It is our responsibility, as leaders in this movement, to continue to identify challenges, seize opportunities, and advocate for change.

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  • Lisa McIntyre-Hite
    Lisa McIntyre-Hite